Book review: Home - the agony of exile and the forgotten massacres of Indonesia

Leila S. Chudori’s brilliant novel uses first-person accounts to weave a tale of loss and yearning

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2015, 10:35am


by Leila S. Chudori


Home is where the heart is, or so they say. But what if you’re forced to leave your home behind in order to survive? Indonesian journalist and writer Leila S. Chudori’s novel Home looks at this question through several lenses.

The novel, translated by John H. McGlynn, is a fictional telling of life in both Indonesia and Paris for political exiles after the 1965 anti-communist massacres by the Suharto regime. First-person narratives by Dimas Suryo and his friends and family illustrate the historical facts. Each chapter moves fluidly between Paris and Indonesia, the 1990s and the 1960s.

Suryo is a journalist working in Jakarta for a newspaper staffed with Marxists, leftists and communists. When he and some colleagues are away at journalism conferences in Cuba and China, a coup attempt is blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. In response, mass killings of confirmed and alleged communists and their families begin.

Suryo and his companions seek asylum in Paris. Much like the Syrians seeking political asylum today, the Indonesian exiles are people without a country forced to adapt to foreign ways of life, far from the comforts of their families and familiar foods.

Food becomes a driving force in the novel. Suryo’s story is driven as he grinds the spices for curried dishes. He meets his wife through sharing his edible culture. The bond between him and his fellow escaped countrymen grows deeper as they soldier on in their restaurant while longing for Jakarta and waiting for enough time to pass that they may return safely.

Home is one of the first novels to take a deep dive into the events in Indonesia of 1965. Historic and academic texts there have either glossed over or completely ignored the massacres.

Suryo’s daughter Lintang learns alongside the reader about the atrocities. She is a student at the Sorbonne and finds herself at odds being a modern Parisian student as well as the child of an accused communist. She is simultaneously at home and longing for a deeper connection to her father, her culture and herself.

Without Lintang’s chapters, the story begins to feel hopeless. The suffering and loss that Suryo and the other exiles face, while realistic, is also utterly heartbreaking. Lintang offers a fresh sense of optimism to their world. She does not come with the baggage of the lives left behind – rather she is able to seamlessly look forward and back.

For a more visual and visceral way of understanding the events in the book, the Oscar-nominated film The Act of Killing and its companion film The Look of Silence, both directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, are the best bets.

Readers will be left wondering what it might take to drive them to abandon everything and everyone they know, to wander through a foreign bureaucracy in search of the safety, comfort and serenity that comes with knowing that you are home.

Tribune News Service